Here’s something unsurprising: Disney has made a new animated film starring talking animals about the importance of acceptance. Now, here’s something surprising: that movie is actually quite funny, creative, and treats the subject matter with moral complexity. It would have been so easy for Zootopia to fall into variety of formulaic traps and feel like every single Disney movie that’s ever been made before. Yet the filmmakers decided to get creative with their concept. Sure, there are countless sequences that crack jokes about how silly it would be for animals to act like humans. But there are also some rather inspired gags and an intriguingly complex look at the issue of prejudice and how it’s just as big of a social sickness when coming frem the perspective of the oppressed as it is coming from the oppressors. Bet you didn’t see that coming! Oh yeah and it all ends with a horrible Shakira music video…but hey! You can’t have everything.
Zootopia takes place in a world with anthropomorphized animals living together in one big glorious city. There are neighbourhoods of rain forests and arctic tundra. Some areas are oversized for elephants and some miniaturized for rodents. Long ago a truce was called between predator and prey that allows everyone to live together despite their natural instincts. Into this world wanders Ginnifer Goodwin’s bunny with dreams of becoming a cop. There’s long been discrimination against the tiniest and cutest of animals joining the police force, but thanks to a new inclusion program (as well as a remarkable amount of talent and hard work) she makes the team. Unfortunately, her big bull boss (Idris Elba) doesn’t trust her to do anything more than traffic duty. Determined to prove herself as a cop, she starts independently tracking a mystery involving a variety of missing mammals throughout Zootopia. In fact, she even puts aside her natural prejudice towards foxes to team up with a particularly sly one (Jason Bateman) who knows the Zootopia underground well enough to be an ideal guide. Together their sleuthing uncovers a strange conspiracy that just might be causing predatory animals to revert to their basest instincts—something that causes the central partnership to fracture in obvious ways.
First up, Zootopia works wonderfully in all of the simple family fun ways that it’s been marketed. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and Zootopia itself is a beautifully realized world filled with opportunities for comedy, action, and insight that co-directors Bryon Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) milk for all they’re worth. The comedy is particularly sharp, with excellent voice performances from a variety of unexpected comedians and actors cast perfectly to type. The humour varies from child friendly visual gags and wacky animal behaviour in a civilized context (the sloths/DMV sequences is destined to be remembered and replayed for many moons) as well as more adult friendly innuendo a pop culture references (I’ll bet you never thought there’d be a Breaking Bad joke in a Disney movie, right? Well, you were wrong). As pure pleasure mass entertainment, Zootopia delights just fine. Where it really shines is in its themes.
In the early going Zootopia feels like it will merely be a straightforward tale of a belittled outsider learning to believe in herself and prove the masses wrong. The predator/prey, tiny/large animal dynamic breaks down simply and the filmmakers have plenty of fun playing out their human themes in an animal world (one discussion involving how bunnies can call each other cute, but no other animal should is particularly on point). Then as the story wears on, things get more complicated. Without getting too much into spoiler territory, the filmmakers explore how prejudice isn’t limited to any larger social group oppressing a minority, it’s something that everyone can be guilty of. That’s a pretty complicated exploration of a social issue for a Disney film, but one that the filmmakers cover with surprising depth and sensitivity. It’s great to see a Disney movie suggest that merely believing in yourself isn’t enough and that everyone can be culpable of prejudice if they aren’t self-aware. There’s a surprising even-handedness in the discussion that almost feels like South Park without the satire.
Now all that being said, as fun and smart as Zootopia might be, it’s still a massive Disney product and beset by the usual limitations of that brand of crowd-pleasing family-friendly production. Many dusty jokes land with a thud (hey, did you know you can parody The Godfather?!), some of the CGI spectacle blurs into unnecessary noise, the detective plot gets a little too unnecessarily convoluted, and it all ends with an advertisement for a Shakira song that’s more than a little irritating. Still, you practically have to expect these limitations of a Disney animated blockbuster, almost like genre requirements. The fact that the movie works far more often than not and delivers such a complicated message is worth showering with praise. This is Disney animation at its best, for better or worse. Given that Zootopia is coming out in a time when a US presidential candidate is running with a campaign based on hate and irrational internet outrage over cultural sensitivity makes rational debate nearly impossible, Zootopia feels oddly like a movie of the moment. It’s strange to say that about a Disney family feature and given the loooooong production schedule of any CGI feature, there’s no way the filmmakers intended to make a movie of the moment. Yet, somehow it happened and that’s worth celebrating. Even if you aren’t a child or have access to one to take to the theater, Zootopia is actually worth checking out. In fact, it’s even a rather special achievement.